As soon as something happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, or which has any connection to our region, the US State Department or the White House issues comments within minutes, or at the most within hours, and the same goes for Britain and others. Take for example the recent Israeli – US dispute and how this was dealt with by the media on both sides. In our region we wait for days to find out the “initial” reaction, if this comes at all. A journalist or a newspaper may take the initiative and telephone [the concerned party] in order to find out their point of view, but the response will come “this isn’t a matter to be discussed over the phone.”
Of course there are good Arab models, such as the Saudi Interior Ministry with regards to security issues, but generally we suffer from the problem of “this isn’t a matter to be discussed over the phone” in an ongoing manner. Imagine the state the media would be in if every journalist had to travel in order to obtain every piece of information or clarification. This is not to mention the extent of the media confusion that would be caused by this, especially since we live in an age of rapid information turnover, and this represents the key to shaping public opinion and convincing the public of the correct approach of the State, any State. Therefore lack of information strengthens rumors that fuel uncertainty and ambiguity, especially as rumors spread quickly thanks to the presence of thousands of inflammatory websites. Unfortunately, Ayman al-Zawahiri is well aware of the importance of the media, and he previously said that more than half the battle takes place in the media, and this is completely true. However some politicians are ignorant of this fact; not to mention that our region is currently in the midst of a genuine ideological battle.
I asked an Arab official who recognizes the importance of the media [about this], and he said “the Arab official is concerned with satisfying his president, so when he speaks he is doing so in order to give publicity to his president through the media, and when he declines to speak he is so doing in order to show that he can keep a secret. As for the westerner, he is open towards the media and tires to exploit it in order to convince the public of the correctness of his views” and the views of his president, of course. The official added “if information was not leaked to the Washington Post and the New York Times we would not know the direction of US policy towards the region.”
As we have stated repeatedly, the problem is that the analysis of the news and ensuring that it reaches its recipients without interference is more important than the news itself. This is something that requires understanding of the media and communicating with it. We are aware that in our region – for example – false information is only objected to four days after it is made, and despite the media seeking to obtain information at the time of the [news] event the prepared response is continually “this isn’t a matter to be discussed over the phone.” The problem is that it is not helpful for the rejection [of the false information] and a statement to be issued days later as the media and the public will not pay attention to this. The reaction on the day of the [news] event remains the most prominent during the media follow-up.
These inadequacies in the approach to dealing with the media are not merely confined to some Arab politicians, but [Arab] economic officials as well. A senior economic official complained recently because the size of the font of the news headline concerning him was smaller than the font of a headline of a report on [international] financial markets. The economic official had the audacity to question the motives and interests behind the publication, despite the fact that his statement did not reveal anything new, while the report on the financial markets mentioned previously is something that affects millions of citizens. If a journalist got in touch with him [the official] whilst news was breaking in order to obtain a comment, his response would be “this isn’t a matter to be discussed over the phone.”
The purpose of the media is to be an objective for the careful official who wants to convey his message [to the public] and this is something that is achieved by those who excel at communicating quickly with the media. This is something that requires understanding and clarity of vision, not lectures.